Sun Apr 24, 2005
By Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict took charge of his Church at a majestic inauguration on Sunday and set the tone for his papacy with a plea to humanity to return to God and transform a world he called a desert of pain and poverty.
Three weeks after the death of John Paul, presidents and pilgrims again packed the cobbled expanse in front of St. Peter's Basilica to see the new Pontiff installed on the papal throne as the leader of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.
Cloaked in shimmering golden vestments, Benedict told a crowd estimated at 350,000 that he was "a weak servant of God" and appealed for prayers to help him in the "enormous task that truly exceeds human capacity".
Applause echoed around the colonnaded square as flag-waving pilgrims interrupted his powerful sermon more than 40 times, chanting "Benedict, Benedict," at the end of the speech.
"My real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord," said Benedict, 78, the German former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
At the end of the 2-1/2 hour Mass service, the Pope was driven around the square in a white, open-topped jeep, smiling and waving as he passed through a sea of cheering pilgrims.
Security was again tight, as it was for the funeral for John Paul. Rome shut its airspace, closed roads and had anti-aircraft missiles and a NATO plane guarding against attack.
The great bells of St. Peter's that had signalled Benedict's election last Tuesday, rang out once more in celebration and organ music reverberated throughout the Vatican.
"I liked his homily a lot. He took up the previous pope's words. This should be a papacy of continuity," said Silvio Viccierhai, a 50-year old Italian in St. Peter's.
Benedict, the oldest man to be elected Pope for three centuries, is regarded by many more liberal Catholics as a champion of conservatism, a reputation he holds from his long years as the Vatican's chief doctrinal overseer.
He takes over the Church at a time of dwindling congregations and an ageing base in Europe and stiff competition from evangelical sects for followers in the developing world.
In his first official sermon as the 265th leader of the Church, Benedict often mentioned his predecessor John Paul, and promised to continue his policy of reaching out to other faiths.
But the main focus of his sermon, delivered entirely in Italian, was on what he called a world of alienation, suffering and death that he said had become a spiritual wasteland.
Facing such woes, he said his Church was still very much alive, young and able to grow.
"There are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love," the Pope said.
"There is the desert of God's darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.
"Therefore the earth's treasures no longer serve to build God's garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction," he said.
GOD'S AGENDA, NOT HIS
The Pope was elected in a secret conclave of the Church's 115 voting cardinals after just three rounds of voting last Tuesday. He is the 16th pontiff to take the name Benedict.
"My dear friends - at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more," he said.
"Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves."
Just before the Mass began, the Pope visited the tomb of the Church's first pope, St. Peter, who is buried in the crypt beneath the main altar of the vast basilica a short distance from where John Paul's remains were laid to rest on April 8.
The symbols of papal authority, the Fisherman's Ring and the pallium, a narrow stole of white wool, sat on St. Peter's tomb overnight and were presented to Benedict during Sunday's service.
Many in the square and surrounding streets, where crowds followed the Mass on large television screens, were the Pope's compatriots waving German and Bavarian flags.
"The atmosphere here is indescribable. It's a great feeling to have a German pope," said Martin Hackmann, 40, a German salesman who got to the square at 4.00 am to get a good spot.
Fewer world leaders were at Sunday's Mass than at John Paul's funeral, which with 2,500 dignitaries resembled a summit of the world's powerful, but the attendance list was still long with some 140 official delegations present.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Horst Koehler headed the German delegation. The U.S. group was led by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of U.S. President George W. Bush and a convert to Roman Catholicism.
The dignitaries included Spain's King Juan Carlos and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion. Benedict's brother Georg, 81, who is a priest, was also present.